The Wilkes County Clerk of Superior Court’s office was closed for the day at mid-morning Wednesday due to foul odors in that area of the first floor of the county courthouse in Wilkesboro.
This resulted in courtroom proceedings on the second floor being cancelled for the day. Wilkes District Court sessions and motions in Wilkes Superior Court were scheduled then.
Wilkes Clerk of Superior Court Regina Billings made the decision to close the office about 10 a.m. Wednesday, but it took about an hour for everyone there to leave. One employee who is pregnant was allowed to leave early as a precaution.
Billings described the smell as similar to rotten eggs and said it was constant and strong enough to give her and her staff headaches. She said their eyes burned and some became nauseous.
“It was to the point where we could taste it in our throats. It was that bad.”
No other offices in the courthouse were closed, but Billings said the foul odor was also detected in the magistrate’s office and the maintenance staff work area. Like the clerk of court’s office, these are on the first floor and the southern end of the courthouse.
Billings said she reported the odor by phone to Chris Hicks, safety and continuity of operations manager for the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), and was told to not re-open “until the problem is fixed.”
She added, “They want us to have a working environment that is odor-free. Whether it is dangerous or not, we should not have to work in these conditions.”
Billings said she is authorized to close the clerk of court’s office without the state’s permission, but still wanted to inform the AOC.
She said Chief District Court Judge David Byrd also said he supported her decision.
The clerk of court’s office was open on a regular schedule Thursday and Billings said there was no more than a faint odor then.
She said the same odor has been a problem in the clerk of court’s office about once a month for the last six months and prompted her to close the office on Aug. 7. On another occasion, Wilkes Emergency Medical Services was called and checked on clerk of court staff impacted by the odor.
The same smell arises periodically in the Wilkes Register of Deeds office on the northern end of the first floor of the courthouse, said Register of Deeds Misty Smithey. “If myself or my staff were put in harm’s way, I would close the office, but scented candles and air fresheners mask the smell well enough for us to remain open to serve our citizens,” added Smithey.
Although the odor has been most prominent in the clerk of court’s office and elsewhere on the first floor, Billings said it has been detected in an inmate holding cell on the second floor.
She added, “It’s up to the county to fix it and if the county doesn’t, the state could step in and require action. I don’t think it will come to that because the county is working diligently to address it.”
Billings called Wilkes County Manager John Yates and two commissioners, Chairman Keith Elmore and Brian Minton, about the odor Wednesday morning and they came to the courthouse.
At the courthouse, Wednesday morning on one of his regularly scheduled visits was David Haynes of Exton, Pa.-based Forensic Environmental Services, hired by the county to monitor air quality in the facility as a result of mold being an issue there in the past.
Haynes said he tested air in the clerk of court’s office Wednesday morning and found no hydrogen sulfide (sewer gas), carbon monoxide or BTEX. He said he found .065 parts per million (PPM) of formaldehyde and .346 ppm of total organic compounds, but said these aren’t causes for concern.
Wilkes County government spent $380,000 investigating and addressing moisture and mold issues in the county courthouse in late 2016 and early 2017. The county is about to spend nearly $300,000 on a new courthouse roof.
Fans were placed and a side courthouse door to the clerk of court’s office was opened Wednesday to help address the odor issue. Plumbers also made an inspection.
Yates said Thursday that he is still making phone calls for help determining the cause of the odor and how to address it.
He said there are plans to put new seals around the two private toilets in the clerk of court’s office and install Odor Hog devices with charcoal on sewer vent pipes atop the nearby Wilkes County Jail. Yates said Wilkes Building Inspector Keith Walsh is also going to inspect the facility.
Taller sewer vent pipes and Odor Hogs were already installed on the courthouse roof.